Day 23, Banff to Coleman leg.
Up early, excited about starting Leg 4: Banff to Coleman today. We take over a corner of our hostel lounge area to enjoy a quick breakfast of bagels with jam & cream cheese and strong coffee. Then, we hop in the Adventure Rig, drive to Banff to pick up the ponies and then off to the Brewster Creek trailhead. Mid-morning, we’re on the trail.
We work our way up the valley on wide, easy trail for two hours to Sundance Lodge. This section of trail is like a backcountry super-highway, since it’s regularly travelled by Banff Trail Riders, exclusive trail ride operator within Banff National Park, with their own backcountry lodges.
The grade increases as we continue to climb. The trail gets rockier and narrower but is still well-defined and clear. We arrive at Halfway Lodge shortly before 4:00pm and decide to call it a day. The Lodge has been shut down for the season, but the little lean-to kitchen area on one side is accessible so we whip up dinner in there while the horses graze outside. After dinner we set up the electric fence in a grassy meadow across the creek below the Lodge. Ponies will get a big bellyful of grass tonight! Finally, Peter and Tina lay out their sleeping bags on the floor of the kitchen lean-to. I lay out mine on the covered porch of an adjacent log building.
Bellies full and beds made, we’re relaxing, drinking tea and listening to Peter tell stories of past adventures. He’s a great story-teller and has been doing these epic long rides annually since 2004, in locations all over the world, so he’s got plenty of stories. We’re laughing, enjoying the tales and having a great time. Life is good!
I don’t remember Tina leaving, but I sure remember her coming back. “The horses are gone.” She says matter-of-factly. “We’ve got horses to catch!”
Like a sprinter out of the starting blocks, Peter is up and running. Time is of the essence. They don’t have much of a head start and are likely heading back down the trail, so he’s in hot pursuit. I stop to grab Charlie’s halter and lead rope and follow. Tina stays in camp in case they didn’t go back down the trail after all, and return.
Charlie and Ahi are wearing bells, so when we start hearing bells, we’ll be sure we’re on the right trail. I run down the trail until I’m tired. I haven’t caught Peter, or heard bells. I continue down the rocky trail in the fading light, alternately running and walking, for at least an hour. No Peter. No bells. It’s getting dark and I’ve got a decision to make. Do I continue following down the trail in hopes of catching up to Peter and the horses, or go back to camp and message our driver, Peter G, letting him know what’s going on.
What is the best way for me to help Peter? If I follow, and eventually catch him, it’ll be two of us stuck out all night on the mountain with the horses and no warm clothes or shelter. If I message Peter G and he gets back to the trailhead, he can intercept horses if they make it all the way back, and at least the two Peters will have shelter in the trailer. I decide to go back to camp and message Peter G on the InReach.
I turn back up the trail as darkness falls and head back to Halfway Lodge. It’s uphill, dark and there isn’t much run left in me; the trip back up the trail seems to take forever. It gets dark, really dark; the roots and rocks of the trail are like a series of never-ending landmines ever ready to trip me up. In my haste to catch up with Peter and the horses, I didn’t stop to grab my headlamp. I haul out my phone and intermittently use the flashlight app to light the way. I hope the battery lasts…
Eventually I reach Halfway Lodge. The horses have not come back. Tina has gone to bed. There is nothing to be gained by staying up. I wake Tina, give her the update and message Peter G on the InReach. Hopefully he gets the message in time.
With nothing more to do but wait, and hope, I move my sleeping bag into the kitchen lean-to with Tina. We crawl into our sleeping bags and go to sleep. Fingers crossed.
12:30 AM, the screen door to the lean-to slams in the wind, waking us up. It’s pouring rain. No Peter.
2:30 AM, the screen door opens. It’s Peter. “Put on some tea. I’m wet, freezing and got to warm up. I got the horses.”
Tina and I spring into action. Tina fires up the JetBoil to make hot tea for Peter while I track down dry clothes and move his sleeping bag so he can crawl in and start warming up. He’s borderline hypothermic.
Wearing all the dry clothes and insulating layers we can find, wrapped in his sleeping bag and drinking hot tea, he begins to warm up and tell the story. He heard the horses bells shortly after starting down the trail, so continued in hot pursuit. It wasn’t long after that, he caught up with them. But they kept moving, always staying just ahead of him. On the narrow trail with bush, rocks, deadfall and cliffs on both sides, it was impossible to skirt around and get ahead of them. Eventually, he was able to catch my horse, Charlie, but Rodeo and Ahi continued to stay just out of reach.
He only stopped long enough to take off his safety vest and leave it on the trail with a note for me telling me not to follow him. Go back to camp and message Peter G to go to the trailhead with truck and trailer. I never saw his vest or the note, but good to know my instincts had been correct and I’d made the right decision.
Leading Charlie, he followed Rodeo and Ahi all the way back to Sundance Lodge where he was able to catch them. I still don’t know how he was able to lead them all back. Rodeo and Ahi were wearing halters, but Charlie wasn’t. Peter was on the trail so fast after them, I don’t recall seeing him grab a lead rope. Somehow, he brought them back. All the way, roughly 14 km, up a muddy, rocky trail, in the rain, in the dark, wearing cowboy boots.
Disaster averted, but 28 unnecessary km travelled. So much for our attempt to give the horses a rest day. As a buddy of mine often says, “No good deed goes unpunished.”